Monday, May 01, 2006

Great Scientists: Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)


"This curiosity flourishes, and stimulates one to learn astronomy. And astronomy is not rejected, but highly praised, as is appropriate. Now, this Astrology is a foolish daughter. But dear Lord, what would happen to her mother, the highly reasonable Astronomy, if she did not have this foolish daughter. The world, after all, is much more foolish, indeed is so foolish, that this old sensible mother, Astronomy, is talked into things and lied to as a result of her daughter's foolish pranks..."
-Johannes Kepler

Johannes Kepler was born in Weil der Stadt in Swabia, in southwest Germany. From 1574 to 1576 Johannes lived with his grandparents; in 1576 his parents moved to nearby Leonberg, where Johannes entered the Latin school. In 1584 he entered the Protestant seminary at Adelberg, and in 1589 he began his university education at the Protestant university of Tübingen. Here he studied theology and read widely. He passed the M.A. examination in 1591 and continued his studies as a graduate student.

Kepler's teacher in the mathematical subjects was Michael Maestlin (1550-1635). Maestlin was one of the earliest astronomers to subscribe to Copernicus's heliocentric theory, although in his university lectures he taught only the Ptolemaic system. Only in what we might call graduate seminars did he acquaint his students, among whom was Kepler, with the technical details of the Copernican system. Kepler stated later that at this time he became a Copernican for "physical or, if you prefer, metaphysical reasons."

In 1594 Kepler accepted an appointment as professor of mathematics at the Protestant seminary in Graz (in the Austrian province of Styria). He was also appointed district mathematician and calendar maker. Kepler remained in Graz until 1600, when all Protestants were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the province, as part of Counter Reformation measures. For six years, Kepler taught arithmetic, geometry (when there were interested students), Virgil, and rhetoric. In his spare time he pursued his private studies in astronomy and astrology. In 1597 Kepler published his first important work, The Cosmographic Mystery, in which he argued that the distances of the planets from the Sun in the Copernican system were determined by the five regular solids, if one supposed that a planet's orbit was circumscribed about one solid and inscribed in another.

Except for Mercury, Kepler's construction produced remarkably accurate results. Because of his talent as a mathematician, displayed in this volume, Kepler was invited by Tycho Brahe to Prague to become his assistant and calculate new orbits for the planets from Tycho's observations. Kepler moved to Prague in 1600.

He analyzed the vast amount of data upon Brahe's death. From this data, he prepared new planetary tables (called the Rudolphine Tables). At first, he determined the shape of planetary orbits to be ovoid, but rejected this result for aesthetic reasons. Going back over his calculations, he found and corrected an error. The new shape turned out to be an ellipse, which fit well into Kepler's Pythagorean views on nature.

Kepler tried all sorts of mystical notions to describe planetary orbits, using the Platonic solids and musical analogies. Spread out through his voluminous calculations in Astronomia Nova, however, were three gems: Kepler's laws of planetary motion. For the formulation of these laws, Kepler is considered the founder of physical astronomy. The first law states that the planets move in elliptical orbits with the Sun at one focus. The second law states that the planets sweep out equal areas in equal times (which is equivalent to the statement of conservation of angular momentum. ) The third law states that the period squared in proportional to the semimajor axis cubed. Kepler believed that the planets were kept in their orbits by a "anima motrix" (motive soul), but later modified it to "vis motrix" (life force). He also studied optics as an aspect of astronomy in Astronomiae Pars Optica (1604), and developed the concept of a ray.

Kepler published the seven-volume Epitome Astronomiae in 1621. This was his most influential work and discussed all of heliocentric astronomy in a systematic way. He then went on to complete the Rudolphine Tables that Tycho had started long ago. These included calculations using logarithms, which he developed, and provided perpetual tables for calculating planetary positions for any past or future date. Kepler used the tables to predict a pair of transits by Mercury and Venus of the Sun, although he did not live to witness the events.

Short Version (from Answer.com): Johannes Kepler supported the heliocentric theory by Nicolas Copernicus, defending it in his first major work, Mysterium Cosmographicum (1596). In 1601 Kepler became the imperial mathematician to Rudolf II (emperor of the Holy Roman Empire), succeeding Tycho Brahe. Using Brahe's data, between 1609 and 1619 Kepler developed his three laws of planetary motion in Astronomia Nova and Harmonices Mundi. Thanks in part to a telescope he received from Galileo (they knew each other through correspondence only), Kepler also advanced the science of optics. His achievements in astronomy and mathematics shaped our current understanding of the solar system.

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The foolish daughter astrology has gotten a bad rep. She has not been so much foolish as eccentric, though she has been at times immature, wild, and of loose moral fiber, having from an early age fallen under bad influences by being allowed to hang with the wrong crowd.

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